Movie review: Why 'Shang-Chi' is a big deal for Asians

Fred Hawson

Posted at Nov 26 2021 08:29 AM

Simu Liu in 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'
Simu Liu in 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'

Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) was a warrior from a thousand years ago who had come to possess the legendary ten rings, which made him a powerful immortal. He founded the Ten Rings organization which had been involved in violence through the years, all over the world. In 1976, he met his true love Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the village of Ta Lo. They had two children, Shang-chi and Xialing, with whom Wenwu had been estranged since they were teens. 

At present, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) made a living parking cars with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in San Francisco. One day, Shang-Chi was confronted by bad guys on a bus, who wanted to get the pendant his late mother gave him. Suspecting his father was behind this ambush, this led Shang-Chi to go to Macau to warn his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who was running an underground fight club there. The shell-shocked Katy insisted to tag along.

What importance "Black Panther" was for the African-American community, "Shang-Chi" would be for the Asian community. All the principal roles are portrayed by Asian actors, with only a few Caucasian actors in more minor roles. Shang-Chi is the first Asian title character in the MCU so it is a big deal that this project saw the light of day. This is probably the first time that most people had heard his name or that of the actor playing him. 

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Simu Liu may not be a big name and familiar face compared, but he certainly proved his worth here in his feature film debut as a lead actor. He looked very good in all his fight scenes. That fight scene on the San Francisco bus, which introduced Liu to the general public in the first teaser, is still probably the best fight scene in the whole movie. His easygoing and humorous rapport with his co-star Awkwafina and her trademark awkward slacker character Katy is another big plus.

Tony Leung, of course, is a legendary name among Asian actors. He played Wenwu more relaxed than would be expected for such an intense anti-hero role, but he cannot be faulted for his acting choices as he still made it work. 

Michelle Yeoh revisits her role as the graceful yet powerful fighter in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to play Shang-Chi's aunt Ying-nan. Meng'er Zhang's training in MMA and rope darts showed in her fight scenes as Xialing.

To remind us that Shang-Chi will eventually be part of the MCU pantheon, Dr. Strange ally and Master of Mystic Arts Wong (Benedict Wong) makes an appearance in this film, more than once. The first one seemed to be whimsical, in a caged fight with the Abomination (voiced by Tim Roth). But the second one and the one after that (that featured two more unexpected hero cameos), were truly very exciting developments indeed. 

An interesting character is ham actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), whom we last saw as the Mandarin in "Iron Man 3" (2013). At first glance, the only reason he was even in "Shang-Chi" was because he was able to communicate with this faceless "chicken pig" creature which gave them directions to Ta Lo. But this also gave Trevor a chance to explain what really happened before, and show what he is reduced to now under Wenwu, the real "Mandarin."

Before this, director Destin Daniel Cretton's biggest project was "Just Mercy" (2019), which got good reviews. His work in "Shang-Chi" catapults him into the major leagues. 

It was quite a lengthy film because it had to tell the history of how a new superhero got his powers, but with the well-choreographed fight scenes, over-the-top battles of CGI mythical creatures and the well-timed comic relief, this was one very entertaining movie.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”